There may be nice cemeteries with trees, meandering streams and soft green grass in the plains of Northeastern Montana, but not in my dinky home town. Ours was more like a modern-day boot hill — a dry, dreary, treeless spot on a windswept hill populated with weeds on many old, untended graves.
Before Alzheimer’s robbed Dad of his faculties, we had a talk about his mortality. “Your mom bought 3 plots up there when your brother was killed,” he said. “One for him, one for herself and one for me. Even has my name already carved into the stone.”
“I know, Dad,” I replied. “Do you want a casket or would you rather be cremated?”
“Don’t think I’ll care much when the time comes. You kids do what you think is best, but don’t spend a lot of money. I’d rather you get what little I have left than have some funeral home get it.”
Dad passed away in San Diego a couple years later, where he lived with my older sister. It was most expedient to have his body cremated, so she arranged it, then her family flew to Montana for the funeral with Dad’s remains in their luggage and I flew in from Florida.
“A plastic bag full of ashes?” I was shocked. “That’s kind of like emptying the fireplace.”
“That’s how they do it,” she snapped.
“We’ve got to come up with a decent burial container,” I said.
“What?” she demanded. “Urns are awfully expensive just to stick in the ground.”
“Remember how Grandpa was such a coffee hound,” nephew Johnnie piped up. “He made a pot first thing in the morning, then had a cup with him all day long, even though most of the time it went cold.”
“And your point is…?”
“Let’s bury his ashes in a coffee can. He didn’t want a lot of fuss and money spent on a funeral.”
“That’s brilliant,” I said, and everyone agreed.
So we bought a cheerful blue 3-pound can of coffee, dumped most of it out leaving a little in the bottom in honor of Dad, the coffee hound, then poured his ashes in.
The funeral was held on a miserable gray November day. A cold mist tinged with a few snowflakes confirmed that fall was fighting a losing battle with the oncoming Montana winter.
After a service where several speakers shared good memories of Dad, and a get-together with friends and family in the warm church basement, the immediate family drove up the hill to the cemetery. The chilly wind slapped our faces and a light mist condensed on everything. It was a somber time on a somber day in a somber place.
My sister pointed to a spot behind the family stone. “We’ll put him here.”
“That’s not the right place,” I protested.
She was insistent. “Hey, I remember standing right here at Mom’s funeral. They buried the casket there (pointing) and Dad has to go next to her.”
I had a vicious head cold coming on, hadn’t slept well, and was freezing and miserable. We’d been disagreeing about almost everything all our lives and I didn’t want a big argument with her. I knew Dad wouldn’t have cared, so I said, “OK, OK, do what you want.”
Johnnie dug a hole with a rusty old shovel, we reverently put the blue coffee can in, and I led the family in a prayer. Then Johnnie filled the grave, patted the dirt down and stuck the shovel in the ground. We stood around the grave in the icy mist at the far end of the lonely cemetery, rusty old shovel marking the spot, said our last goodbyes to Dad, then went our separate ways.
Several years later my sister and I were on more friendly terms. I called on her birthday and during our chat she mentioned something about Dad.
“You know we buried him in the wrong spot,” I said.
“Yeah, they call the stone a headstone for a reason. It stands at the head of the grave and you bury the body in front of it. We buried Dad’s ashes behind it.”
“Oh crap, I guess you’re right, but Dad would think it was funny.”
We both chuckled and agreed no harm done.
But I’d love to be around to see somebody’s expression when he digs a grave in that plot and unearths that rusty old coffee can full of ashes.